Catch a Falling Star

POSTED ON 10/01/2011

Unwrap a parcel and you always hope for a nice surprise. That’s the thing about hopes and parcels. They create expectations that don't always deliver. Parcels, or deals, have long been the stock-in-trade of Majestic which was particularly adept at snapping up great deals when Tony Mason, alas now retired, was in charge of the buying. Among his most famous coups was picking up thousands of cases of mature claret from the Swedish monopoly Vin & Sprit.

Houghton - Never Let It Fade AwayHoughton - Never Let It Fade Away

Following in the Masonic footsteps, his latter-day counterparts at Majestic have recently seized on ‘an exciting parcel of some fantastic wines at really incredible prices!’ Unravelling Majestic’s deathless prose for one moment, what they actually mean is that they’ve picked up a job lot of wines from Houghton, Mondavi and Ravenswood. One imagines this is linked to Constellation’s fire sale of its Australian and European-based brands. Some are worth snapping up, others should be fended off as one might a bouncer from Jimmy Anderson.

Majestic and Constellation are both the story du jour for different reasons. In Majestic’s case, the retailer, which this year is planning to add another 12 to its 160 stores around the UK, has swum against the ebb tide of Christmas sales to post healthy figures for the end of the year. One of the key factors has apparently been its previous year’s decision to reduce the minimum purchase from 12 bottles to six. And judging by its autumn tasting, it’s also because it consistently turns over new and interesting wines.

I see Wood, I see a Bridge, I see WoodbridgeI see Wood, I see a Bridge, I see Woodbridge

Constellation is in the news too but their story reminds me of the tube station news vendor who did a roaring trade by crying ‘news, news, ‘orrible news tonight, get your Evening Standard here’. Having paid $AUD 1 .85 billion for BRL Hardy, a great Australian name, back in 2003, Constellation has sold four-fifths of its Australian, South African and UK-based operations to a Sydney-based private equity fund called CHAMP for a comparatively nominal $AUD 290 million.

The global forces of a poor economy and strong exchange rates haven’t been kind to Constellation, not for that matter have the UK’s supermarkets and their customers’ insatiable appetite for promotions. But Constellation never really convinced anyone that the grandiose pursuit of volume for profit wouldn't sooner or later come a cropper. The signs were there in the shedding of their premium outfit, Cellar Door, a while back, and, more recently, their withdrawal from the London International Wine Fair. Behind the corporate speak and marketing guff has been a relentless downmarket approach, a self-fulfilling prophecy resulting in winery sales and redundancies.

No Wimpy WinesNo Wimpy Wines

There is a chink of light at the bottom of the barrel in that Leasingham has been saved and sold off to Tim Adams while Stonehaven also survives in the hands of a family group. It’s what will happen to the once-great names of Houghton and Hardy in Australia that’s the worry. With no heritage or pride left in the brands, and since CHAMP has no wine industry track record, their destiny looks bleak.

Meanwhile here’s a note of the wines on offer at Majestic. They should be in most stores during the week and we’re told they won't last long, wishful thinking on Majestic’s part perhaps, but probably true in the case of the better wines at least:


2008 Houghton Sauvignon Semillon 2008, £4.99

With its sweet aromas of tropical citrus and gentle spritz, this is a pleasantly fresh Bordeaux-style blend from Western Australia that's still refreshingly juicy with herbal undertones. There’s also a 2007 which I didn’t taste. 83

2008 Robert Mondavi Woodbridge Sauvignon Blanc, £3.99

Not a lot to commend this with no varietal character on the nose or palate, hence distinctly dull and well past its best. Could be in part the synthetic top instead of screwcap. Bad idea. 74

2008 Robert Mondavi Woodbridge Merlot, £3.99

Slightly jammy and herbal on the nose at the same time, this is ok in a sweet and simple way if you don't mind a bit of residual sugar in your reds, but it’s too confected for my taste. There is a 2007 which I didn’t taste. 77

2007 Robert Mondavi Woodbridge Shiraz, £3.99

At three years old, this could either be over the hill or nicely mature; it's actually a quite attractively spicy and juicily plummy, blackberryish red with some grip to it; a bit of a bargain at this price. Don’t ask me why this wine (older than the merlot) is sealed with a screwcap when the merlot isn't. 84

Houghton - a famous Swan Valley nameHoughton - a famous Swan Valley name

2008 Houghton Cabernet Shiraz Merlot, £4.99

Attractively leafy on the nose with a hint of capsicum and nicely juicy soft blackcurranty fruit tinged with oak spice; a great winter warming little red at a down-to-earth if not actually bargain basement price. There is a 2007 which I didn’t taste. 86

2007 Ravenswood Vintner's Blend Zinfandel, £4.99

Another red that at three years old, could either be over the hill or nicely mature; it's still robust, jammy and spicy at the same time, and while it's just lost the edge of freshness of its younger counterparts, it’s decent enough at the price. 83

Up The Swanee?Up The Swanee?

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